Why urban teenagers speak the way they do
Nov 2nd 2013 |From the print edition
You think my accent’s bonkers. Your kids speak like me
IN HER novel “White Teeth”, published in 2000, Zadie Smith noted that in London, “all kids, whatever their nationality”, seem to express scorn with a Jamaican accent. Since then linguistic researchers have gradually come to understand how and why so many teenagers sound like Dizzee Rascal, a rapper from Bow in east London (pictured). They call this spreading, mutating argot Multicultural London English (MLE).
When MLE first emerged, linguists believed it was a ham version of the way West Indians speak English. In the early 1980s “West Indians who had spoken Cockney suddenly started to speak differently,” explains Paul Kerswill of York University. Young Afro-Caribbean men may have adopted a new style of speech as they sought to forge an identity in an often hostile society. Others were thought to have copied them.
But far from being cod-Jamaican, MLE is now thought to be a hybrid dialect that emerged from the intermingling of West Indians, South Asians and speakers of Cockney and Estuary English. Though much of the slang is West Indian—from “bare” for “very” to “sick” meaning “good”—the pronunciation is often not. Its chief characteristic, an elongated “ah” sound in place of an “i” so that “like” is pronounced “lahke”, does not imitate a West Indian patois.
Researchers have found that MLE alters from place to place. Variants have emerged in other cities with many immigrants, such as Birmingham and Manchester. Children tend to pick up MLE at secondary school. It is more common—and more strongly accented—among boys than among girls. The grammar that tends to accompany MLE is increasingly uniform: for example the use of "we wasn't" in place of "we weren't".
Linguists are most excited by what MLE is doing to the rhythm of speech. English is usually spoken with a stress-timed rhythm, in which syllables are stressed at regular intervals. Speakers of MLE speak with a syllable-timed rhythm, in which all syllables are accorded roughly the same time and stress, as in French or Japanese. Syllable-timed speech is a characteristic of languages that have come into contact with other languages. Versions of it may have existed in multicultural places such as Hackney for centuries, thinks Mr Kerswill.
Helped along by the exodus of old-fashioned Cockney speakers to London’s suburbs and commuter towns, MLE is replacing London’s traditional vernacular. That worries some. Caroline Goyder, a former teacher who now coaches politicians and lawyers in the art of public speaking, says she sees increasing numbers of school leavers who fear they are incomprehensible in job interviews. For one young Cambridge graduate working in Paris, that rings true. His MLE accent is proving as much of a problem as his imperfect French. “I know it’s incongruous”, he says, “but it’s hard to lose, y’get me?”